"Death and life inside you"
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
June 10, 2018—Proper 5B
Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
All those who fight against evil spirits are on the side of the good. ALL those who work to heal others, care for others, restore others to wholeness, are doing God’s work. To deny this, to malign others simply because they somehow fall into a different group from you, is a grievous and terrible thing. You are brothers and sisters; you are family; you are on the same side, are in fact part of the same group. The only one that matters.
You are resisting the evil spirits. Some days more successfully than others. And in different ways, perhaps, than the person next to you. But still … brothers and sisters in the work of healing the world.
The good news is, that opportunities to engage in this work are literally all around you. Well, actually that’s the overwhelming news. The good news comes from Jesus, reminding you that engaging in this work unites you not only to each other but with God. The good news comes from Paul, promising that in the midst of all the dying and suffering, the resurrected life of Jesus will be in you, and work through you.
Paul struggled to get to that truth, of course. His work on behalf of the gospel led him into a great deal of suffering. He and his companions were impoverished, persecuted and imprisoned, and Paul naturally struggled with what that meant. Because we struggle with things like this. Despite all our protestations and convictions, we secretly equate success and good fortune with Divine favor. So when we suffer … when we fail in some way … when things are hard for us … part of us suspects that it is due to, well, Divine disfavor!
And even if we manage to wrestle that fear down, we have reason to believe others will look at us suspiciously. So we struggle, like Paul, to take hold of the truth of resurrection: the truth that life on this earth is lived in clay vessels. The truth that suffering will come, that failure will come, that death with come. It will. But that does not mean the absence of God. Quite the opposite, in fact: it means that we are united to Christ in his suffering and failure and death. Right down at the blood and the bone, united with Jesus, and ready to be raised up. Ready to have his resurrection, alive and present and visible in our very flesh.
In our very flesh. It’s important to remember this part of Paul’s understanding, when reading this week’s passage from 2 Corinthians. Because this week, he looks to the resurrection that is to come. He recognizes that this clay jar, this earthly tent is our home for just the blink of an eye when compared to eternity. And he comforts himself with the promise that someday his sufferings will be over, and he will overflow with glory.
Which is actually beautiful and hopeful. But only if you don’t forget that first part—only if you hold onto the part about the resurrection that is made visible on this side of the grave, within these clay vessels. Because without that, this promise of heaven can be twisted into something life-denying. It can sound like 3rd century Gnostics, seeking to free the spirit from the sinful body. It can sound like cult leaders, convincing their followers that some kind of paradise lies only on the other side of their willing death.
This danger was disturbing me this past week, even before the news of the suicides of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Even before those reminders of the evil spirits that tear at so many people in this world. Wracking them with pain, robbing them of hope, convincing them that the only way out of the suffering is death.
And I do believe with all my heart that their suffering is ended. In that, there is some great mercy. But … there is also the fact that suicides (especially well-publicized ones) encourage more suicides among those who are already fragile and on the brink. The rates go up; the danger is increased. And for those who have died, for those whose immediate pain is ended, there is still the fact that they are … gone. Any hope of healing, any chance of a new day they had in this world has been shut down. They were united to Jesus in all their pain and their death, but his life no longer has the chance to break through, to break in, to lead to newness and recovery. And I know, because I have stood too close to the excruciating pain of the severely and chronically suicidal not to understand at least a little, how much it is to ask a person to hang on for the hope of healing. I know, in fact, that it might be almost too much to ask. Certainly too much to believe … that dawn might someday break. But this is the outrageous, almost ridiculous “ask” that is the core of our faith of Christians. We must sit, and be present, and continue to speak the power of hope. Offer our belief in the possibility of healing. The possibility of resurrection. And to be there, as sign of Christ’s presence through it all.
Healing and resurrection are never completely realized in this world, of course. That’s the way of the clay vessels: it’s a clumsy, breakable existence. But the spirit is here, the Spirit is working in the midst of it all, and Christ’s life can still shine through.
Because there’s no (freaking) point to the ultimate fullness of resurrection, to the raising of the dead, if there is no reflection of that resurrection in this world. If the power of the resurrection cannot shine back into this world, cannot break into this world, cannot be light and hope in this world (in these mortal bodies, as Paul says), then how can any of us ever see through to the glory?
It does shine through. This is the promise. This is the calling. In our bodies, we are united with Christ in our suffering and death, and that means that his life is at work in us too. In our bodies. Our fragile, wayward bodies.
Unsurprisingly, that makes it a fragile, wayward kind of calling. But honestly, that’s what makes it work. Karoline Lewis goes so far as to describe this as the unique gift of the church to the world: Our job is not so much to be perfect and from there to critique society. It is rather to tell the truth about our own suffering and brokenness. “What makes the church stand out, perhaps truly out of its mind, is that we tell the truth of our own sinfulness. That we are willing to admit it. That our story gives us the stories and words and theology to admit our failings and foibles and yet we still believe that forgiveness is possible.”[i] We still believe that resurrection is possible.
It is a powerful gift. To sit at the bedside of the world, to sit at the bedside of a suffering individual, and hold that hope. To speak that truth with all the faith that the Spirit can breathe into our clay jars. To allow that possibility of new life to be visible in us, to shine through us, to be borne into the world by us.
There are evil spirits in this world, which tear at people in so many ways. Wracking them with pain, robbing them of hope, convincing them that the only way out of the suffering is death (theirs or another’s). We stand against those evil spirits, on the side of the Good. We stand, armed only with our own suffering, our own brokenness and the knowledge that we too will die. We stand, knowing that this means we are united not only with each other, but with Christ, and his LIFE lives in us. May it be enough to ease the suffering of one individual. May it be enough, thereby, to save the world. May it be so, Amen.